Learning Cross-Cultural Business Collaboration From Ayanomimi

Aya Okamura
Managing director & Founder of ayanomimi

Denmark, where the digitalization of infrastructure, including welfare and medical fields, is advancing, is globally recognized as a model case in various design fields. 

To meet the changing social needs of the times, cross-border corporate collaborations are expected to create new value. Thus, it is essential to resolve the cultural communication gap between companies in the process of generating such collaborations.

This time, we interviewed Aya Okamura, the representative of ayanomimi, who conducts business consulting and project production utilizing the potential of Japanese and Danish companies as a “bridge of culture.”

A communicator connecting Scandinavia and Japan

── What kind of work does ayanomimi do?

Aya: ayanomimi is a consulting company that proposes global projects utilizing the characteristics of Danish and Japanese companies. As a communicator, we not only provide language interpretation but also support the process of creating a collaborative structure in the fields of design, lifestyle, and innovation by reducing the “?” that arises from differences in business backgrounds, customs, and values.

I started the company while attending graduate school at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) and this year marks our 13th anniversary. Since then, I have been interested in how to connect Japan and Denmark to create more economic value as a business and how to facilitate a positive joint development process between the two parties. 

Leveraging my background of having Japanese parents while receiving education in Denmark, I aim to expand the possibilities of collaboration between Danish and Japanese companies as a communicator.

── Denmark’s education is often said to be of a high standard.

Aya: Yes, that’s true. Personally, my passport is Japanese, and I find it easier to think in Japanese, but because I was born and raised in Denmark, I believe that my way of thinking and ideology have been greatly influenced by the local school education.

Looking back, I have never had any sad experiences because of being Japanese, so I feel that it was a good environment. While there is still bullying, perhaps my surroundings were particularly good.

Let me share an episode from my kindergarten days. When I was about three years old, I was quiet at kindergarten because at home we spoke Japanese and I was a shy person. At that time, I was struggling with communication in Danish, and one day a classmate asked me, “Why don’t you speak in Danish?” It startled me.

What helped me was the teachers explained to the other children, “Aya can speak Japanese, so she can do things that others can’t. You should teach her Danish.” This positive follow-up has stayed with me.

As for the question of whether the education level is high, I think Japan has a higher level of quantifiable education. However, the educational policy where they “praise and develop what individuals can do,” is common in Denmark. I think it creates a good environment that leads to individual confidence.

In this way, the culture of “respecting what individuals can do and helping each other despite differences” that is prevalent in Danish education is also rooted in the business scene and social infrastructure.

──Which fields are most common in collaborations between Danish and Japanese companies?

Aya: We have facilitated various projects, both big and small, between Denmark and Japan, totaling around 80 so far. Initially, there was a lot of support for Danish companies entering Japan, mainly focusing on planning and supporting partner development, as well as conducting research through document translation.

Generally, collaborations between Nordic and Japanese companies are strongly associated with stylish furniture and industrial products with functional beauty. In recent cultural exchanges between companies, there has been an increase in the digital field, expanding into areas such as lifestyle, education, and welfare.

Interview at ayanomimi’s shared office

The reason for increasing collaborations of Japanese companies in Denmark

── What specific companies are entering the digital field?

Aya: The fields of healthcare and welfare are particularly impressive as areas where long-standing exchanges have taken place. Joint development of niche research and operational tests, such as welfare robots, has been carried out. Compared to Japan and other European countries, Denmark has made significant progress in the development of social IT infrastructure and digitalization.

Especially in the region of Odense, on the island of Funen, many Japanese companies are still entering. Odense has a population of 200,000, similar to Tokyo’s Taito Ward. Although it is small compared to a prefecture, it provides a realistic environment for simulating and collecting data on things that are difficult to implement in Japan. This is also an effective process for large-scale themes such as “digitalization of administration.” As a result, more companies are conducting field research to see various precedents in Denmark.

One recent notable example is the impact of Fujifilm’s initiatives. They are planning to establish a base in the city of Hillerød, north of Copenhagen, for the production of biopharmaceuticals. It is a fairly large-scale endeavor that will employ 450 people locally.

This is also my personal impression, but in addition to having a well-established digital infrastructure, Denmark’s neutral stance in politics and religion means that there is less risk of extreme opinions conflicting and creating noise as data during market testing of projects.

── Denmark seems to have a well-established soil for new challenges.

Aya: Yes, even in the collaboration between companies in niche fields, there is potential to target the global market through speedy prototyping and test marketing. This configuration makes it easier to aim for scale, so there is great potential.

On the other hand, there are also challenges. In niche fields, there is a shortage of global talent as communicators, which can hinder the speed of project planning due to subtle nuances and cultural differences, as well as networking in the necessary local environments.

Addressing the challenges of collaboration between companies across borders

── I see, so communication design as a “bridge of cultures” is necessary here.

Aya: Yes, my work involves designing business communication, taking into account the cultural differences between Denmark and Japan, as well as editing and translating collaboration plans.

One recent concrete example that left an impression was working with MUJI. In 2020, MUJI opened its flagship store, “MUJI ILLUM Copenhagen,” in the prestigious department store ILLUM in the capital of Denmark, Copenhagen. MUJI is one of the beloved Japanese brands in Denmark, highly regarded for its commitment to materials and rational production processes.

Since it was MUJI’s first store in Denmark, the person in charge was quite concerned about business planning and networking in the local market. We were able to accompany them as a partner who knows the local scene and assist with these challenges. We receive a lot of consultations like this from Japanese companies.

Another example is the case of employing local staff, as mentioned earlier with Fujifilm, or dispatching a responsible person from Japan to the local market. In the business field, many people are perplexed by the cultural differences that occur daily, so opportunities to learn about culture and support communication are crucial.

In cross-border business involving multiple countries, there are often subtle nuances that cause discrepancies in instructions and expectations. In such cases, it is important not to settle for simple language interpretation but to understand each other’s cultural backgrounds and engage in editing and translation of collaboration plans.

── This is a story that resonates with our everyday work scenes.

Aya: Yes, it’s a common experience. I have witnessed such situations a lot as well. Since everyone has grown up in different environments and learned different customs, I think it is difficult to fully understand the communication styles of other countries. It is also unfair to mock one culture, such as saying “Japanese people talk too much and don’t get to the point,” or to optimize everything for one culture’s document format.

In the future, instead of forcibly aligning with either the communication style of Denmark or Japan, it is necessary to increase the design patterns of communication.

I want to support the process of creating new value by leveraging the strengths of Danish and Japanese companies and realize collaborations that excite both parties.

── Is it difficult to fulfill such roles without receiving an education in Denmark like you, Aya?

Aya: I don’t think it is necessary to receive education in Denmark, but it is important to understand the “logic” behind business, not just language and knowledge. It is crucial to understand what motivates companies and individuals to act. To do that, it is important to meet and talk with people in various positions and listen to their experiences.

Another important aspect is to focus on cultural commonalities. That’s why we organize B2B study sessions and events in both Denmark and Japan, where we can highlight these cultural similarities.

B2B study session Aya has done for Japanese companies

Finding commonalities and turning them into strengths

── What are the commonalities between business people in Denmark and Japan?

Aya: It may be too broad to generalize as “national characteristics,” but there is an impression that many people in both countries are humble regarding fundamental ideology and have a calm and cooperative nature. There are few people who have a personality that wants to gain a competitive advantage by outdoing others, and there is not much environment that fosters such individuals. For example, in Denmark, there is an increasing number of schools without report cards.

I think there is a connection between the humble mindset of trying to work well within an organization and the willingness to complement each other among those who can do what others cannot do. This humble sensibility is something that connects Japanese and Danish people.

On the other hand, due to these traits, it is less common for exceptional players who can become role models to emerge, and consensus-based decision-making can work poorly, leading to a tendency for things to move in a conservative direction. It would be great if we could turn our cooperative nature into a strength, but this also requires driving force.

── Despite having similar roots, Denmark gives the impression of having speedy collaboration between the government and its citizens.

Aya: Actually, in Denmark, there is a very high level of trust from citizens towards the government. For example, many people are willing to entrust their personal data to the government for digitalization, even if they don’t want to entrust it to private companies. There is a high level of interest in politics and society from the elderly to young people, but it may be because the government and citizens rely on each other and have a strong sense of their respective obligations.

In addition, the Danish government employs dedicated in-house designers and, if necessary, appoints design agencies. This shows that the government and citizens attach great importance to design. Designers create government public relations materials and design communication between citizens and the administration from a specialized perspective. Transparent communication leads to trust in the government and contributes to citizen participation in society, so the role of designers is important.

A “reliance and delegation” culture that fosters innovative business collaboration

── So, as a characteristic of Danish people, they are accustomed to relying on others in a positive sense, is that correct?

Aya: Yes, that’s right. I believe this cultural aspect also works in a positive way when it comes to collaboration between companies in joint projects. Denmark, from an educational perspective, provides a conducive environment for such cultural traits to flourish. I also take note of these patterns when promoting collaboration between companies in my work.

As mentioned earlier, this can also be seen in the relationship between the government and its citizens. Instead of following specific rules or guidelines just because the government declared them, everyone in the community thinks together about how to improve the area. Citizens are happy to participate in discussions because they have the opportunity to voice their opinions.

── In Japan, there seems to be a stronger tendency to start with creating guidelines and rules.

Aya: That may be true. You may have already experienced it, but have you noticed a lack of signs in public transportation or a lack of explanations in facilities and equipment throughout the city? Visitors from Japan might be surprised by the difference in information.

Whenever I visit Japan, I am always overwhelmed by the amount of information. However, at the same time, I feel that a lot of information is organized and summarized, and I am amazed by the accuracy of services like the subway, which arrives almost on time. In Denmark, it is quite common for the subway to stop and not move.

As a characteristic of Danish people, even if there are troubles, they don’t demand perfection from the service and tend to find solutions themselves, saying “It can’t be helped.” They believe that if they don’t know something, they can ask someone, and if they are in trouble, they can rely on someone. For example, we see a similar phenomenon in the shared office space we are in. There are minimal signs or instructions, and we rely on existing users to ask and understand things like the location of supplies or how to use the facilities.

── Actually, I was very curious about this office! When I observed the people occupying it, it seemed like there was a wide range of age groups.

Aya: That’s right. Many people have started their businesses as a second career, and the majority are in their late 40s to 50s. In Denmark, there are various types of coworking spaces, so I used to be in a slightly different kind of incubation office, but now I feel comfortable and settled here.

Because of the culture of mutual assistance, it is nice to be able to discuss work-related matters, bounce ideas off each other, and receive advice from people with diverse experiences. In the shared kitchen, healthy lunch menus are provided at designated times, and the facilities are available for use freely. There are no special rules, but the space is always kept clean.

No signs are posted in the shared office kitchen

── It is indeed a wonderful environment where new challenges can be undertaken precisely because of the “delegation” culture.

Aya: Thank you very much. In my case, I leverage my background to act as a “bridge of culture” in projects between Denmark and Japan, but the interests of both countries naturally change along with the market. Therefore, I make an effort to update my understanding as a communicator on a daily basis.

I am very thankful for my working environment, for Japanese companies that resonate with the social and cultural aspects of Denmark, as well as the roommates in the shared office space.

There may still be relatively few communicators who promote international business collaborations and branding like myself, but I hope that the methodology of Danish culture and the initiatives of ayanomimi can serve as a reference for those who will be active in such areas in the future.

── Thank you very much, Aya!

Related Links

ayanomimi:  https://ayanomimi.com

Written By

Noriaki Kawanishi

Noriaki is an editor at Spectrum Tokyo. Leading the design strategy of various businesses in the cross-organization of DMM.com LLC. A "survival" designer who runs a guest house and co-living business of his own. He likes camping and Makita.


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